YANGON, Myanmar – American officials are warning that attacks on minority Muslims and foreign aid groups in Myanmar are threatening the nascent thaw in relations between Washington and this former pariah state.
The Obama administration counts Myanmar’s transition from military rule as a major foreign policy success for the president and his former secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton. For Myanmar leaders, normalizing relations with the U.S. government was key to ending their dependency on China.
But allegations – disputed by the Myanmar government – that dozens of Rohingya Muslims were massacred by mobs of Buddhists in western Rakhine state in January have outraged human rights groups and members of Congress.
Adding to the concern, radical Rakhine Buddhists attacked the offices and homes of foreign aid workers in the state in March. The Buddhists accuse the aid organizations of providing disproportionate assistance to the Muslims.
Daniel Russel, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, visited Myanmar last week to push President Thein Sein and other officials to allow the return of aid groups that have been forced to leave the area.
The fact that we have a stake in the success of the government and the reform efforts doesn’t mean that we pull punches, Russel told foreign journalists in Yangon, the commercial capital of Myanmar. The crux of my message was: The whole world is watching.
The U.S. and other Western governments have embraced the reformist government that took over here in 2011, following decades of military dictatorship. Long-standing economic sanctions have largely been suspended, and economic aid has flowed.
But the picture on the ground is complex. In Myanmar, also known as Burma, a growing measure of democracy and economic reform co-exist with a virulent strain of Buddhist nationalism.
There’s an inability in London and Washington to entertain two contradictory narratives about this country, said Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based analyst and former International Labor Organization representative to Myanmar. That’s one reason why Rakhine is so dangerous and so potentially corrosive to the U.S.-Myanmar strategic relationship.
The risk, Horsey says, is making the relationship hostage to the events in Rakhine, which the central government does not have the ability to fully control.
United Nations agencies and the U.S. Embassy in Yangon have been vocal in pushing for investigations and measures to end violence and discrimination against the largely impoverished Rohingya and other Muslims.
But Myanmar’s leaders present Rakhine as an internal issue with little bearing on their reform efforts. And with national elections approaching in 2015, politicians appear reluctant to alienate Rakhine leaders, particularly since many share a paranoia about the Islamization of the largely Buddhist country.